It is civilians who are most victimized by the war between the Nicaraguan government and the anti-Sandinista guerrillas, known as contras. In Nicaragua's rural northern provinces, where the war is most intense, many civilian campesinos say they want no part of the war and do not take sides. Yet they are frequently the target of ambushes and kidnappings by the contras.
Both the Sandinista Army and the contras, they say, demand aid and allegiance. Many villagers and peasants say they feel caught hopelessly between the two sides.
Though the contras have never captured and held a town, the Sandinistas acknowledge the rebels have some support, both forced and voluntary, in some rural areas. After four years of fighting, they say the contras have proved a difficult force to combat.
Here on the northern road between Wiwil'i and Pantasma, six trucks burned by the contras sit charred at the roadside. Two bridges nearby are partially destroyed, and Sandinista officials have said the black holes in the dirt road are the result of mines laid by contras.
Sandinista soldiers said the contras controlled parts of the road in December until a Sandinista special forces battalion of about 900 forced them back into the mountains.
``It's the first time they struck with that kind of force,'' says Marvin Castro, the top Sandinista representative in Wiwil'i. ``It's difficult to control that kind of hit-and-run attack. It would be easier if they faced us in combat.''
Conversations with Sandinista soldiers and officials in this area, which is often called a war zone, suggest that the government is feeling increasingly pressured by the war. The war started four years ago as little more than a series of border skirmishes. Fighting intensified in 1982, with Nueva Segovia Province becoming a highly contested zone. Since then, the contras have penetrated at least eight Nicaraguan provinces. The most conflictive ones are Neuva Segovia, Jinotega, and Zelaya.
In the past several months, attacks have come wihtin several miles of provincial capitals, including Estel'i and Jinotega. In January, contras blew up four electrical towers in Jinotega, throwing that town and nearby villages into darkness for up to three days.
Sandinista Defense Minister Humberto Ortega Saavedra acknowledges that the contras have penetrated deep enough into Nicaragua to inflict some serious economic damage. But at a recent press conference, he said:
``If the United States completely cut off aid to the contras, they would be wiped out in a matter of weeks or months.
``We want to reconstruct the country, but we are ready to live in caves in the mountains, and in loincloths, if neccessary, before we will bend to the policy of the United States.''
The United States Congress is scheduled to weigh new funding for the contras in late February or March. Recent press reports have quoted Reagan administration officials as saying that the contras are receiving aid from Honduras, El Salvador, and Israel.
Both contra and Sandinista officials say there are 10,000 to 11,000 contras inside Nicaragua, although Western sources believe these statistics are inflated. Contra supply bases are across the border in Honduras, but most of the rebels are said to move around in small groups in the northern Nicaraguan provinces. Their arms are largely American-made mortars, artillery, and grenade launchers, with some Soviet-made AK-47 rifles and Belgian FAL rifles.
Mr. Castro says that the contras sometimes force cooperation by holding family members hostage or threatening them with death. He said some campesinos, won over by anti-communist rhetoric and contra charges that the Sandinistas are anti-Christian, willingly help the insurgents.
``The revolution is incipient there,'' says Mr. Castro, arguing that the contras only have support in the absence of a strong Sandinista presence in this isolated, mountainous region.
But for many civilian in the war regions, the question is not who to support but how to avoid the war.
Contras frequently attack agricultural cooperatives, state-owned farms, health centers, and other government programs, reasoning that anything or anyone connected to the Sandinistas is fair game.
Sandinista officials charge that contras have attacked 97 towns in the last four years, and that 41 clinics and 14 schools were destroyed in that time. In 1984, these officials say, the rebels killed 98 schoolteachers and abducted another 171. About 140,000 were force from their homes in the last month alone, these sources charge.
Frank Arana, with the mainHonduras-based contra group, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, said rebels consider agricultural cooperatives, protected by guards, and other facilities as part of the Sandinista infrastructure and therefore as ripe for destruction.